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A.C. No.

5819

HEIRS OF SIXTO L. TAN, SR., represented by RECTO A. TAN, Complainants


vs.
ATTY. NESTOR B. BELTRAN, Respondent

RESOLUTION

SERENO, CJ.:

Before this Court is an administrative complaint against respondent, Atty. Nestor B. Beltran.
His derelictions allegedly consisted of his belated filing of an appeal in a criminal case and
failure to relay a court directive for the payment of docket fees in a civil case to his clients -
complainants Heirs of Sixto L. Tan, Sr. represented by Recto A. Tan. The latter also accused
him of unduly receiving ₱200,000 as payment for legal services.

FACTS OF THE CASE

After agreeing to pay attorney's fees of ₱200,000, complainants engaged the services of
respondent counsel for the filing of cases to recover their commercial properties valued at
approximately ₱30 million.

On July 2001, complainants filed a criminal action for falsification of public documents and
use of falsified documents against Spouses Melanio and Nancy Fernando and Sixto Tan, Jr.
Docketed as LS. No. 2001-037,1 this case was dismissed by the provincial prosecutor of
Albay.

Respondent was notified of the order of dismissal on 18 October 2001.2 On 6 November


2001, he filed an appeal via a Petition for Review before the Secretary of the Department of
Justice (SOJ). It was, however, filed beyond the 15-day reglementary period to perfect an
appeal.3 Consequently, in his Resolution promulgated on 5 March 2002,4the SOJ dismissed
the belated Petition for Review. Respondent no longer filed a motion for reconsideration to
remedy the ruling.

On 11 September 2001, complainants instituted a related civil suit to annul the sale of their
commercial properties before the Regional Trial Court (RTC) of Naga City, docketed as Civil
Case No. 2001-0329.5 After being given ₱7,000 by his clients, respondent tasked his
secretary to pay the docket fees computed at ₱1,722.

Unfortunately, the Clerk of Court erred in the assessment of the docket fees. To correct the
error, the RTC required the payment of additional docket fees through an Order dated 20
May 2002,6 which respondent received on 29 May 2002.7 However, two weeks earlier, on 13
May 2002, he had moved to withdraw as counsel with the conformity of his clients.8 No
separate copy of the Order dated 20 May 2002 was sent to any of the complainants.9

The balance of the docket fees remained unpaid. Subsequently, the RTC dismissed the civil
case, citing the nonpayment of docket fees as one of its bases.10

Aggrieved by their defeat, complainants wrote this Court a letter-complaint11 asking that
disciplinary actions be meted out to respondent. They likewise contended that he had unduly
received ₱200,000 as attorney's fees, despite his failure to render effective legal services for
them.

Respondent claimed12 that he could no longer move for the reconsideration of the SOJ's
dismissal of his belated Petition for Review as he had only learned of the dismissal after the
period to file a motion for reconsideration had lapsed. He argued that while he prepared the
Petition for Review, his clients themselves, through Nilo Tan and Recto Tan, signed and filed
the same. Thus, he imputed to complainants the belated filing of the appeal.

As for the dismissal of the civil action for nonpayment of docket fees, respondent disclaimed
any fault on his part, since he had already withdrawn as counsel in that case. 1âwphi 1
Anent his receipt of ₱200,000 as attorney's fees, respondent denied collecting that amount.
He only admitted that he had received ₱30,000 to cover expenses for "the preparation of the
complaints, docket fee, affidavits, and other papers needed for the filing of the said
cases."13 He did not deny his receipt of ₱7,000 for fees and other sundry expenses, of which
₱l,722 had already been paid to the Clerk of Court for docket fees. In any event, Atty. Beltran
argued that ₱200,000 as attorney's fees was inadequate, considering that the property under
dispute was worth ₱30 million.

FINDINGS OF THE IBP

In a Resolution dated 12 March 2003,14 this Court referred the administrative case to the
Integrated Bar of the Philippines (IBP) for investigation, report, and recommendation.

The Investigating Commissioner of the IBP, in a Report dated 24 July 2006,15 found
respondent guilty of neglect in handling the criminal case and recommended his suspension
from the practice of law for three months. The gist of the report reads:16

The Respondent admits that the Petition for Review in this case was not filed. This key detail
leads the Commissioner to conclude that the Respondent was negligent in failing to
seasonably file the Petition for Review in LS. No. 2001-037.

The Respondent's bare defense is that he allegedly left the filing of this petition to the
Complainants, who filed it out of time. Even assuming this is true, the Respondent cannot
disclaim negligence, being the lawyer and knowing that the case related to the
Complainants' claims on properties the Respondent himself states are worth about PHP30
million. xxx.

Some of the Respondent's pleadings instead focus to the Motion for Reconsideration
regarding the late Petition for Review's dismissal, which the Respondent explains by stating
that the Complainants informed him of this when the period to file a Motion for
Reconsideration had already lapsed. Even assuming this is true, it is irrelevant since it is
clear that the Petition for Review itself was not seasonably filed. x x x. (Emphasis in the
original)

With respect to dismissal of the civil case, the Investigating Commissioner cleared
respondent of any liability. The former gave credence to the fact that by the time respondent
received the directive of the RTC requiring the payment of the balance of the docket fees,
the latter had already filed his withdrawal from the case.

Finally, as regards the factual claim of complainants that they paid respondent attorney's
fees amounting to ₱200,000, the Investigating Commissioner determined that their allegation
was unfounded, as none of them produced receipts evidencing payment. At most, what the
Investigating Commissioner found was that respondent only admitted to receiving ₱30,000
for expenses, aside from ₱5,278.17 The former recommended that respondent be ordered to
restitute these sums to complainants.

In its Resolution dated 1 February 2007,18 the Board of Governors of the IBP resolved to fully
dismiss the administrative case against respondent without any explanation. Neither party
has filed a motion for reconsideration or petition for review thereafter.19

ISSUES OF THE CASE

l. Whether respondent neglected legal matters entrusted to him when he belatedly filed an
appeal before the SOJ, resulting in the dismissal of LS. No. 2001-03 7

II. Whether respondent is guilty of violation of the Code of Professional Responsibility and
other ethical standards for failing to inform complainants of the RTC Order to pay the
balance of the docket fees in Civil Case No. 2001-0329

III. Whether respondent unduly received ₱200,000 as attorney's fees

RULING OF THE COURT


We set aside the unsubstantiated recommendation of the IBP Board of Governors. Its
resolutions are only recommendatory and always subject to this Court’s review.20

Respondent filed a belated appeal


before the SOJ.

In Reontoy v. Ibadlit,21 we ruled that failure of the counsel to appeal within the prescribed
period constitutes negligence and malpractice. The Court elucidated that per Rule 18.03,
Canon 18 of the Code of Professional Responsibility, "a lawyer shall not neglect a legal
matter entrusted to him and his negligence in connection therewith shall render him liable."

In the case at bar, respondent similarly admits that he failed to timely file the Petition for
Review before the SOJ. As a result of his delayed action, his clients lost the criminal case.
Straightforwardly, this Court sanctions him for belatedly filing an appeal.

The excuse forwarded by respondent - that he delegated the filing of the Petition for Review
to complainants - will not exculpate him from administrative liability. As correctly explained by
the Investigating Commissioner of the IBP, respondent cannot disclaim negligence, since he
was the lawyer tasked to pursue the legal remedies available to his clients.

Lawyers are expected to be acquainted with the rudiments of law and legal procedure. A
client who deals with counsel has the right to expect not just a good amount of professional
learning and competence, but also a wholehearted fealty to the client's cause.22 Thus, we find
that passing the blame to persons not trained in remedial law is not just wrong; it is reflective
of the want of care on the part of lawyers handling the legal matters entrusted to them by
their clients.23

After surveying related jurisprudence,24 the Investigating Commissioner recommended the


suspension of respondent from the practice of law for three months given his infraction of
filing a belated appeal before the SOJ. Yet, without explanation, the Board of Goven1ors
resolved to ignore the recommendation of the Investigating Commissioner.

Accordingly, this Court will not adopt an unsubstantiated resolution of the Board of
Governors, especially when jurisprudence shows that we have penalized lawyers for filing
belated motions and pleadings. In the resolution of this Court in Reontoy,25 we suspended the
counsel therein from the practice of law for two months, given that his belated filing of an
appeal caused his client to lose the case. In Fernandez v. Novero, Jr.,26 we likewise
suspended the respondent counsel for a month after he filed a motion for reconsideration
outside the reglementary period. In Barbuco v. Beltran,27 this Court imposed a six-month
suspension on the lawyer, who had belatedly filed a pleading, among other derelictions. We
stressed in that case that the failure to file a brief within the reglementary period certainly
constituted inexcusable negligence, more so if the delay of 43 days resulted in the dismissal
of the appeal.

Respondent failed to inform


complainants of the RTC Order
requiring the payment of full docket
fees.

Respondent argues that he was no longer bound to inform complainants of the RTC Order
requiring the payment of full docket fees, given that he had already moved to withdraw as
counsel with the conformity of the latter. We find that argument unjustified.

Mercado v. Commission on Higher Education28 is instructive on the effect of the withdrawal of


counsel with the conformity of the client:

As a rule, the withdrawal of a counsel from a case made with the written conformity of the
client takes effect once the same is filed with the court. The leading case of Arambulo v.
Court of Appeals laid out the rule that, in general, such kind of a withdrawal does not require
any further action or approval from the court in order to be effective. In contrast, the norm
with respect to withdrawals of counsels without the written conformity of the client is that they
only take effect after their approval by the court.
The rule that the withdrawal of a counsel with the written conformity of the client is
immediately effective once filed in court, however, is not absolute. When the counsel's
impending withdrawal with the written conformity of the client would leave the latter with no
legal representation in the case, it is an accepted practice for courts to order the deferment
of the effectivity of such withdrawal until such time that it becomes certain that service of
court processes and other papers to the party-client would not thereby be compromised -
either by the due substitution of the withdrawing counsel in the case or by the express
assurance of the party-client that he now undertakes to himself receive serviceable
processes and other papers. Adoption by courts of such a practice in that particular context,
while neither mandatory nor sanctioned by a specific provision of the Rules of Court, is
nevertheless justified as part of their inherent power to see to it that the potency of judicial
processes and judgment are preserved. (Emphasis in the original)

On 29 May 2002, when respondent herein received the RTC Order dated 20 May 2002,
complainants still had no new counsel on record. Therefore, Atty. Beltran should have acted
with prudence by informing his previous clients that he had received the directive of the court
requiring the payment of docket fees. After all, lawyers are officers of the court. Like the court
itself, respondent is an instrument for advancing the ends of justice and his cooperation with
the court is due whenever justice may be imperiled if cooperation is withheld.29

The appropriate penalty for an errant lawyer depends on the exercise of sound judicial
discretion based on the surrounding facts.30 In this case, we consider the fact that not only
did respondent file a belated appeal before the SOJ, but he also failed to act with prudence
by failing to inform complainants of the RTC Order dated 20 May 2002.

However, we cannot put the blame solely on Atty. Beltran for the nonpayment of the docket
fees in the civil case. Although not discussed by the Investigating Commissioner, the records
reveal that even if complainants' new counsel learned about the ruling on 30 May 2002, the
former still failed to pay the additional docket fees.31

Taking into consideration the attendant circumstances herein vis-à-vis the aforementioned
administrative cases decided by this Court, we deem it proper to impose on Atty. Beltran a
two-month suspension from the practice of law for belatedly filing an appeal before the SOJ.
We also admonish him to exercise greater care and diligence in the performance of his duty
to administer justice.

Complainants failed to prove that


respondent received ₱200,000 as
attorney's fees.

In administrative cases against lawyers, the quantum of proof required is preponderance of


evidence.32Preponderance of evidence means that the evidence adduced by one side is, as a
whole, superior to or has greater weight than that of the other.33

Complainants have the burden to discharge that required quantum of proof.34 Here, as
accurately assessed by the Investigating Commissioner, the records do not bear any receipt
proving Atty. Beltran's collection of ₱200,000 as attorney's fees.

Complainants venture to argue that these sums were paid to respondent without receipts.
However, that bare argument has no other supporting evidence - object, documentary, or
testimonial. Even during the hearing of this case before the IBP, when confronted with
particular questions regarding the sums paid to respondent, complainants could not answer
when and where they gave installment payments to Atty. Beltran.35

General allegations will not meet the evidentiary standard of preponderance of


evidence.36 Hence, we adopt the factual finding of the Investigating Commissioner that
complainants failed to prove their claim of payment to respondent of ₱200,000 as attorney's
fees.

As a final point, the Court must clarify that the resolution of this case should not include a
directive for the return of the ₱35,278 as the Investigating Commissioner recommended.
The Investigating Commissioner did not explain the recommendation for the restitution of
that sum. Moreover, complainants do not contest that respondent received this sum for fees
and other sundry expenses. Neither do the records show that they demanded the return of
this amount from respondent. In consideration of these facts, the proper corrective action is
to order the accounting of the full sum of ₱35,278.

WHEREFORE, in view of the foregoing, respondent Atty. Nestor B. Beltran is SUSPENDED


FOR TWO MONTHS from the practice of law with a warning that a repetition of the same or
similar acts shall be dealt with more severely. He is ADMONISHED to exercise greater care
and diligence in the performance of his duties. He is also ORDERED TO ACCOUNT for the
₱35,278 he received from his clients, with the obligation to return the entire amount, or so
much thereof remaining, to complainants.

This Decision shall take effect immediately upon receipt by Atty. Nestor B. Beltran of a copy
of this Decision. He shall inform this Court and the Office of the Bar Confidant in writing of
the date he received a copy of this Decision. Copies of this Decision shall be furnished the
Office of the Bar Confidant, to be appended to respondent's personal record, and the
Integrated Bar of the Philippines. The Office of the Court Administrator is directed to circulate
copies of this Decision to all courts concerned.

SO ORDERED.

MARIA LOURDES P.A. SERENO


Chief Justice, Chairperson

WE CONCUR:

TERESITA J. LEONARDO-DE CASTRO


Associate Justice

MARIANO C. DEL CASTILLO ESTELA M. PERLAS-BERNABE


Associate Justice Associate Justice

ALFREDO BENJAMIN S. CAGUIOA


Associate Justice